Bernie Kantak Citizen Public House 7111 East Fifth Avenue, Scottsdale 480-398-4208 www.citizenpublichouse.com
This is part one of my interview with Bernie Kantak, chef and co-owner of Citizen Public House. Come back on Tuesday for part two, when Kantak reveals where he'd go if he could jump on an airplane tomorrow and how Chef Josh Hebert of Posh inadvertently changed his life.
Bernie Kantak is about as far from celebrity chefdom as a celebrity chef can get. He doesn't seek the limelight, because he's never comfortable in it. You won't see him swanning around the dining room or schmoozing it up at Citizen Public House -- although he makes little forays from the kitchen from time to time to speak to friends and regulars, who are often one and the same thing.
If it weren't for his Eastern European looks and ever-present cap, he could pass for a movie star cowboy -- long, lanky, and laconic. In another life, he was an art school major with an emphasis in sculpture, graduating with a fine arts degree from SUNY Cortland, so he's got the soulful artist vibe going -- although he would resist that characterization as too pretentious.
It was actually a ceramics professor who suggested he consider the culinary arts, given that Kantak already had spent so much time in restaurants, earning money as a dishwasher, busboy, server, and line cook. A post-pig roast discussion about art's connection to food and wine prompted Kantak to move to Arizona and sign up for the culinary program at SCI.
Upon graduation, he moved to Lake Havasu to open Shugrue's, and in 1997, moved back to Scottsdale to work as sous chef at Cowboy Ciao. Within six months, he was heading up the kitchen, turning out the wildly imaginative dishes for which the restaurant is famous. Kantak stayed put for nearly 12 years, leaving in 2009 to pursue opportunities downtown, which eventually fell through.
In 2011, he and his partners -- mixologist Richie Moe and front-of-the-house man Andrew Fritz -- opened Citizen, which will celebrate its two year-anniversary in January.
Favorite food smell: Fresh mint, definitely. It takes me back to my childhood in my grandparent's backyard.
Favorite thing to eat growing up: A tomato sandwich with Wonder Bread, mayonnaise, and black pepper.
What's your guilty pleasure?: Burnt brownies and ice cold milk.
Most overrated ingredient: Filet mignon. I want some fat, dammit!
Most underrated ingredient: Vinegar, I use it extensively for pickling, sauces, dressings, and marinades. I love the stuff and would fall apart without it.
Something always found in your kitchen: My Wustof [knife].
Something never found in your kitchen: Chocolate-covered pretzels. They piss me off for some strange reason.
Trend you like: Food trucks, They're traveling restaurants! What's not to love? Is comfort food a trend or here to stay?: Here to stay -- at least different interpretations of it. I hope so anyway; otherwise I'm out of a job!
How has your background (your grandfather being a butcher, your grandparents' nationality, etc) influenced your cooking?: My sister actually makes fun of me a bit for using things here that we would often find at the kitchen table when we were children -- chile sauce from my Swedish grandmother, rustic homey food from my Hungarian grandmother and of course, I have a love for sausage, bacon, pickled eggs, and pig's feet from my German butcher grandfather.
Has your cooking changed over the years and if so, how?: Definitely. It's cleaner. I cook more for me now rather than trying to make others happy.
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Enjoy this Chef Salad? Check out Nikki's previous interviews with: James Porter of Petite Maison Johnny Chu of SoChu House Neo Asian + Martini Bar Stephen Jones of Blue Hound Kitchen & Cocktails Chris Gross of Christopher's Restaurant and Crush Lounge Chris Curtiss of NoRTH Arcadia Payton Curry of Brat Haus Mark Tarbell of Tarbell's Josh Hebert of Posh Kevin Binkley of Binkley's Restaurant Lori Hashimoto of Hana Japanese Eatery Larry White, Jr. Lo-Lo's Fried Chicken & Waffles